‘Katrina Moment’: Is Trump Even Running For Reelection Anymore?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, real billionaire Jeff Gundlach suggested faux billionaire Donald Trump may not run for a second term as president.

During a Fox interview on June 19 of last year, Gundlach surprised the network with his assessment of what might happen in the event the US economy careened into a downturn ahead of the vote.

“I’m not even sure he’s going to really run”, Gundlach remarked. “If the economy goes into recession and he can’t pull out by removing the tariffs, there’s very little for him to run on”.

Gundlach was not impressed when Fox reminded him that Trump kicked off his reelection bid in Orlando the day before. “Things can change”, he said.

Fast forward a year and things have, in fact, changed. The US economy is in a recession, and the second quarter is poised to show the most dramatic contraction in the history of modern economic statistics.

Most of this isn’t Trump’s fault in the first instance. He didn’t create the novel coronavirus. But the administration’s response to the epidemic is generally seen as wholly inadequate and the concurrent groundswell of societal unrest tied to racial and economic inequality is exacerbating the situation.

The president is doubling down on abrasive rhetoric aimed at stoking culture clashes, both at home and abroad. That is not a partisan assessment. It is simply the inescapable conclusion one comes to from reading Trump’s Twitter feed, which is a repository of contentiousness.

From a normative perspective, it’s easy to lament the deleterious effect Trump’s rhetoric has on American democracy. From a political strategy standpoint, though, it’s hard to blame him for suspecting that polls which have him trailing Joe Biden by a wide margin simply don’t reflect reality. After all, the pollsters were decisively wrong in 2016. He relied on the exact same divisive rhetoric then, and it propelled him into the Oval Office.

The chart in the left pane (below) is from a Goldman note dated August 2019. It’s quite something. The right pane shows the U-turn in equity futures on election night.

“Comparing prediction market-implied odds from 2016 with earlier polling results, Trump’s election was the biggest presidential election surprise in at least the past 40 years”, Goldman wrote, adding that “the 1976 election is the only other instance of an electoral surprise at all, but even then President Ford was favored only very narrowly to defeat Governor Jimmy Carter”.

So, it’s entirely possible that all of the polls showing Trump trailing are wrong again, and that a strategy which revolves around dividing the nation and stoking tensions of all sorts will win out in the end.

But, it feels increasingly like the electorate is weary of the daily soap opera — that the incessant barrage of tacky, bumpersticker jingoism has worn out its welcome with all but the most ardent fans.

While Trump isn’t likely to formally pull out of the race, Gundlach’s prediction could end up being de facto accurate to the extent the president has quietly come to terms with the idea he won’t be reelected. Consider the following, from a Politico piece published late last month:

Donald Trump knows he’s losing.

The president has privately come to that grim realization in recent days, multiple people close to him told POLITICO, amid a mountain of bad polling and warnings from some of his staunchest allies that he’s on course to be a one-term president.

Trump has endured what aides describe as the worst stretch of his presidency, marred by widespread criticism over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide racial unrest. His rally in Oklahoma last weekend, his first since March, turned out to be an embarrassment when he failed to fill the arena.

What should have been an easy interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity horrified advisers when Trump offered a rambling, non-responsive answer to a simple question about his goals for a second term. In the same appearance, the normally self-assured president offered a tacit acknowledgment that he might lose when he said that Joe Biden is “gonna be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe.”

Some commentators (and a few readers) recently wondered if the president’s behavior is indicative of a man who knows defeat is all but inevitable and thus no longer feels duty-bound to act any semblance of rational. Maybe he’ll just try to “burn it all down”, goes one narrative.

That assumes Trump ever felt the need to act rationally in the first place, and I personally doubt that he’s completely thrown in the towel. Still, the interview referenced by Politico in the excerpted passages isn’t the only time the president has come across disengaged recently.

On Wednesday, The Cook Political Report was out with an updated Electoral College forecast which shows Biden holding a commanding advantage, and the accompanying commentary is dour indeed for the incumbent.

“This election is looking more like a Democratic tsunami than simply a Blue wave”, Amy Walter wrote, announcing the following changes:

  • Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska’s 2nd district move from Toss Up to Lean Democrat.
  • Maine, once in Lean Democrat, moves to the safer Likely Democratic category.
  • Georgia has joined Arizona, North Carolina and Florida in the Toss Up column, although, at this point, Biden would be slightly favored to win at least Arizona and Florida.
  • Maine’s 2nd district has moved from Likely Republican to a more competitive Lean Republican.

“These moves alone push Biden over the 270 electoral vote threshold (to 279)”, she said, before noting that “Republican strategists we’ve spoken with this week think Trump is close to the point of no return”.

“A couple of others wondered if Trump had reached his ‘Katrina’ moment: a permanent loss of trust and faith of the majority of voters”, she added.

Of course, this could all turn around by November. Or it could turn out that everyone is just wrong, and that Trump still commands the loyalty of a “silent majority”, just waiting to cast their ballots for a man who, if nothing else, can claim the presidency didn’t change who he is. He asserted as much Wednesday.


And yet, I keep coming back to Jeff Gundlach, as much as it pains me to say that.

Specifically, Gundlach’s quote about the economy seems eerily prescient a year later, with the obvious caveat that he didn’t predict a pandemic: “If the economy goes into recession and he can’t pull it out, there’s very little for [Trump] to run on”.

On Wednesday, after an irritable tweet accusing the CDC of adopting unreasonable guidelines for reopening schools, Trump made his pitch.

“Economy and Jobs are growing MUCH faster than anyone (except me!) expected”, he said. “Shaping up for a good third quarter, and a great next year!”


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13 thoughts on “‘Katrina Moment’: Is Trump Even Running For Reelection Anymore?

  1. Trump losing his reelection bid (as increasingly seems likely) will be a trifecta for the Dems: Trump out, the Senate flipped, and the odious Mitch McConnell ousted as majority leader (and maybe sent packing back to his ol’ Kentucky mansion). For Dems, that would be the Rapture cubed.

  2. There is little doubt that Trump loses the popular vote, but there are ways he can take the Electoral College. And since he is likely to face legal problems after his term is over, I’m still inclined to think he is running. Better to run for president than to run from the law.

  3. If he decides to not run for re-election, he can always forever after try and gas light on how if he stayed in he would have won. Classic stable genius move.

  4. He is staying in. Ego too big. Odds -Trump pulls it out for a narrow victory 1/3. Biden wins a reasonable narrow victory 1/3. Trump and the Republicans lose in a blow out 1/3. Trump basically has until mid-September to get within striking distance 5% of Biden. If he does not get in striking distance by then it becomes very unlikely he can win in November.

  5. I’m not American, so take these ‘Couldn’t Trump still snatch it?’ questions as no more than an outsider’s musings: 1/ Won’t Biden’s choice of running mate be a possible game-changer for independents? 2/ Surely Trump will run rings around Biden in the debates?

    1. Biden VP choice critical. On the debate question, NY Times columnist Tom Friedman has a piece out this morning in which he argues that Biden shouldn’t agree to ANY debates until Trump releases his tax returns, as he said he would in 2016. I think he’s on to something. Biden has nothing to gain and everything to lose by debating Trump, who will just stand up there and gaslight America, as he has for the last three and a half years.

      1. The VP choice is minor. It always is. This election, and just about every 1st term election, is a referendum on the current President. The smartest thing Biden has done is essentially disappear over the past 3-4 months. The guy has been in politics forever, but right now he’s just be the vague and amorphous “not Trump.” He should ride that strategy to Election Day if he can and Friedman is onto something about the tax returns.

        1. Pretty much agreeing with you. VP – you need a reasonable choice that allows both moderates and progressives to be happy. Woman of colour but without hard core left message should tick the boxes.

          Stay silent and refuse to debate. The excuse of the tax returns is brillant.

        2. The late John McCain might not agree with you. Biden is not a young man and is unlikely to stand for a second term. His choice of running mate is exceptionally important.

  6. It is hard to rule Trump out at this point. Dems still haven’t figured out how to compete with such an unconventional candidate. I’m starting to feel like the “burn it all down” narrative is a real strategy for Trump. My guess is he ratchets up the bombast, lies, and everything else that goes against conventional wisdom over the next two months and drops that schtick for the “everyone’s favorite grandpa” routine in October to pull would be defectors back in. Say what you will about the man but he is the ultimate Charlatan. He has Biden just where he wants him…I think he learned a lot from 2016.

    1. Remember the 2018 elections? Referendum on Trump, and the outcome was pretty clear. Most people know how they feel, and have felt the same way since 2018 or earlier. And at the margins Trump is losing support. The key is turnout, and it is very clear that the anti-Trump side is motivated to turn out. Trump is done, unless something truly bizarre happens (like Kanye running an actual campaign).

  7. It’s Joe’s to lose. It would probably be better if he and Trump didn’t debate on television. If they do Biden should have a screen behind them where he can play clips of Trump saying stupid things when trump denies he said anything bad. And Joe’s running mate should be strong and experienced because joe may not make it through 4 years much less 8. There are a couple of black women who may qualify. Atlanta’s mayor impressed me.

  8. Trump’s “schtick” is old. The “take my wife” joke might be good for a chuckle the first few times but it gets old. Women have abandoned him and he is even on me. Not sure how he can win. Suburban women will vote against trump and restore decency to the WH and America.

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